Nuon Chea, known as “Brother Number Two”, and Khieu Samphan, “Brother Number Four”, were convicted over the genocide of the Vietnamese minority. Nuon Chea was also convicted of the genocide of the Muslim Cham, who resisted the Khmer Rouge.
They were previously given life sentences for crimes against humanity, including murder, extermination, deportation, enslavement, torture, religious and racial persecution and rape.
The UN Convention on Genocide defines it as “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”.
Around 1.7 million Cambodians, up to a third of the population, are thought to have died between 1975 and 1979 when the Maoist group forced the urban population into rural areas to live as peasants, where many died of hunger and disease or were executed. Bullets were often considered too precious for executions, meaning many died from beatings with axes or bamboo sticks.
Nuon Chea, 92, and Khieu Samphan, 87, were already serving life sentences for convictions from crimes against humanity.
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) has conviction three people for a cost of US$300 million over more than 12 years.
The Khmer Rouge prison chief, Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, was jailed for life in 2012 for the torture and murder of 12,000 people at the Tuol Sleng death camp (pictured) in Phnom Penh.
The regime’s foreign minister, Ieng Sary, and his wife, Ieng Thirith, the social affairs minister, were also charged. Her trial ended after she was diagnosed with dementia and he died in custody in 2013, aged 87.
Leader Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot, was never arrested and allegedly died in Cambodia’s rainforests in 1998. It was rumoured that he lived in comfort in Thailand for years.
Prime Minister Hun Sen says he will allow no more cases to go forward, saying they cause instability.
In 1998 Hun Sen said instead of putting Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea on trial, they should receive “bouquets of flowers, not with prisons and handcuffs”. The veteran autocrat is a former mid-level Khmer Rouge commander.
Like most Khmer Rouge commanders, Khieu Samphan had a privileged background. He studied in Paris, writing a thesis on Cambodian economic development. In Cambodia, he was an academic and journalist before becoming involved in radical politics. Khieu Samphan became head of state under the brutal regime.
His lawyers argued that his position was no more than ceremonial.
Nuon Chea was Pol Pot’s brother-in-law and a key ideological adviser. He studied law in Thailand and served as prime minister until the regime fell in 1979.
Nuon Chea said: “The Communist Party of Kampuchea’s policy and plan were solely designed to one purpose only, to liberate the country from the colonisation, imperialism, exploitation, extreme poverty and invasion from neighbouring countries . . . My hope and wishes were betrayed by those who destroyed the movement.”
Evidence of the “killing fields” is everywhere in Cambodia. Picture credit: Wikimedia